Breach the dams


Last updated 2/20/2024 at 9:54am

There has been a lot of controversy and litigation involving the possible breaching of the Snake River and its lower four dams to save salmon and steelhead. There are pros and cons on each side. Native Americans, environmentalists, fishermen, and scientists favor removing the dams. Utility companies, barge owners, and farmers along the Snake hold a different view. My view is that the four dams should be breached.

The Nez Perce and other tribes have been fishing in the Pacific Northwest since time immemorial. In 1855 the Nez Perce signed a treaty with the federal government. Among other things, they were guaranteed the rights to fish on and near their tribal lands in perpetuity. The rights to fish, of course, implies that there are fish in the river to be caught. But the salmon and steelhead are rapidly disappearing from the Snake River. Before the dams were built in the 1960s and 70s by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, tribes and other experts warned that the wild fish population could be decimated. And that is exactly what has happened. Prior to construction of the dams an estimated 16 million wild fish traversed the river each year to spawn. And even this number is rapidly diminishing.

Salmon is a primary food source for tribes that live along the rivers such as the Snake. Nez Perce used to consume salmon as more than 50 percent of their protein supply. Also, salmon always have been central to their cultural heritage, religion, and origin stories.

Wild salmon are a large part of the circle of life. They are a main source of food for many wild animals, large and small. Their carcasses are typically dropped up to 100 feet away from the flowing rivers, adding precious nutrients to riparian areas. Riparian areas grow grasses, shrubs, and even trees. Many wild animals feed on them.  

In the Pacific Ocean, orcas have as their main diet the chinook, also called king salmon, which is the largest salmon in the Pacific Ocean. Chinook are rapidly disappearing, and orca numbers have been decreasing. According to the NOAA Fisheries, Southern Resident killer whales, off Oregon, Washington, and B.C., have declined about 20% from 94 known orcas to 74 in 2023. ESA lists them as “endangered.” The main reason for this decrease appears to be the loss of their main food source. I’m not saying this is the only cause of orca decrease. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing of salmon also play a role.

There are numerous salmon hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest. Even the Nez Perce, out of desperation, have their own hatchery. There have been discussions pro and con. Research from the University of Oregon and Oregon State is that hatchery salmon are not the answer for several reasons. Salmon are nutritional for human consumption. But research tells me wild salmon are higher quality and are more nutritious. I presume this would also apply to orcas and other wildlife. Wild salmon are sturdier and can survive better in the ocean. A University of Washington study states that wild smolts “always have better survival rates than hatchery fish.” When wild and hatchery fish mix their DNA, the wild become weaker over time. A writer to The Nugget several months ago said that “hatcheries go to great lengths” to keep them separated. But just how do you separate the two in a river? A 2023 article in Hatch Magazine stated that “50 years of research overwhelmingly shows hatcheries are harmful” to salmon.

Then why do the Nez Perce raise salmon? It’s a stop-gap measure until wild salmon are back. There are several reasons they are being decimated, the main one being the four lower dams on the Snake River. These dams create reservoirs, which warm the water, and salmon require colder water. They can be picked off more easily by birds in reservoirs. Smolt are chewed up by all the dams they must go through.

Native Americans have the right to consume wild salmon. But in modern times, utilities, farmers and others also have rights. We do need electricity and flood control. There are no easy answers to these issues that will make everyone happy. Last December, in conjunction with the tribes, the White House announced the government will spend more than $1 billion over the next 10 years to help depleted populations of salmon in the Northwest. At the same time there must be ways found to improve renewable energy and to solve issues of flood control.

People are working together. In 2020 Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID) devised a plan that would attempt to be acceptable to all sides. He recommends that federal funding be used to compensate communities for “lost benefits for energy, agriculture, and transportation” if the dams are breached. In 2020 Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) wrote of the benefits of breaching the dams. Their report created a Columbia Basin Fund to support communities, i.e., energy, agriculture, river transportation, and local homes and businesses.

We have far to go, but I hope we’re going in the right direction.


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